Ottawa has struck deals with two international drug companies to purchase their candidate COVID-19 vaccines for distribution in Canada, federal officials said on Wednesday.
Details of the agreements reached with Moderna and Pfizer Inc., including the cost of the vaccines, have not been disclosed, but Public Service and Procurement Canada Minister Anita Anand said that millions of doses have been ordered from the two companies for delivery in 2021. She added similar arrangements were being sought with other suppliers, with options to increase orders based on need.
“We are working on all possible fronts and diversifying our vaccine supply chain,” Ms. Anand said.
Though the terms of each agreement vary, both vaccines will ultimately require Health Canada regulatory approval. This will depend, in part, on how they perform in clinical trials over the coming months.
During a news conference in Toronto, Ms. Anand said parallel efforts were under way to boost supplies of needles, syringes and alcohol swabs as part of “preparing Canada for mass vaccination” against COVID-19.
At the same briefing, Navdeep Bains, the Minister for Innovation, Science and Economic Development, said his department has formed a vaccine task force to provide the federal government with expert advice on which vaccines to prioritize for purchase on the global market and which Canadian-made vaccines to support with additional funding and production capacity to enable them to advance to clinical trials.
“Priority number one is to make sure that we have safe and effective vaccines for all Canadians,” Mr. Bains said. “Long term, we also want to build a strong industrial base for [Canada’s] life sciences sector.”
The widespread distribution of a successful vaccine is widely regarded as the only viable solution to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the nearly 200 COVID-19 vaccines in development worldwide, about 30 have advanced to human testing. As of this week, six have now reached Phase 3 clinical trials designed to measure vaccine efficacy by administering doses to thousands or tens of thousands of individuals and tracking their rates of infection over time. Among the six are the two vaccines that Canada has so far arranged to purchase.
The vaccine developed by Moderna, a Massachusetts-based biotech company, yielded promising results in an early study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Pfizer’s vaccine was developed jointly with BioNTech, a company based in Germany. That partnership has already stuck similar deals to supply its vaccine to Japan, the United States and Britain.
BioNTech confirmed that part of the manufacturing of the Canadian order would take place in Canada.
The federal announcement also included $56-million for Ottawa company Variation Biotechnologies Inc. and $3-million for Nova Scotia based IMV Inc. to support clinical trials of two made-in-Canada vaccine candidates. Earlier this year the federal government provided funding to Medicago, a Quebec company that last month launched Canada’s first clinical COVID-19 vaccine trial.
As of Wednesday, 133 out of 180 volunteers have been injected with the Medicago vaccine as part of a Phase 1 trial, which is primarily a safety test of the vaccine.
The multiple investments are a reflection of a broader awareness that ultimately several vaccines could be needed to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic on a global scale, said Alex Romanovschi, medical director for GSK Canada, which has partnered with Medicago on its trial.
“At the end of the day ... no one company will be able to cover the entire world,” Dr. Romanovschi said.
While several international vaccines are further ahead in testing than the leading Canadian candidates, experts have argued that Canada should complement its international purchases with efforts to accelerate vaccine development and production capacity at home at a time when it’s not clear which vaccines will ultimately work best.
Prioritizing among domestic vaccine projects, as well as potential international partnerships, is part of the mandate of the 12-member vaccine task force, which began its work in early June.
“We’re making investments that are needed now to be sure that something works out,” said Joanne Langley, a professor of pediatrics and community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Mark Lievonen, a former president of Sanofi Pasteur Ltd. who is co-chairing the task force with Dr. Langley, said he is leading a subcommittee that is looking specifically at manufacturing challenges that vaccines makers will face in Canada.
Canadian participation in vaccine production could become crucial if international shipments are delayed at their country of origin because of demand at home or for other reasons.
A hint of the problems that can arise when relying on international sources is evident in the continued holdup of the delivery of a vaccine from CanSino Biologics – a Chinese company that has partnered with Canada’s National Research Council – for a clinical trial in Halifax. That trial was to have started two months ago but the vaccine has so far not been released by Chinese customs.
Mr. Bains declined to speculate on the cause of the delay but said the issue underscored the need to keep many options open.
Despite this outlook, not every COVID-19 vaccine candidate in Canada has managed to attract federal funding.
On Wednesday, Providence Therapeutics released results from preclincial tests of its mRNA vaccine candidate that is based on the same technology as the Moderna and Pfizer candidates. The company is now seeking support to move ahead with clinical trials.
Brad Sorenson, the company’s chief executive officer, said that the results show the vaccine has the potential to be as good or better than international competitors.
“The question is, does Canada want to be a buyer or a seller?” he said.
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